A Guide to Congress’s Jam-Packed February

Once more into the breach for Pelosi and Schumer. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

As you may recall, the panic over 2021’s serial congressional logjams was partly fueled by the supposition that Congress can’t get much of anything done during an election year. Now 2022 is here, and the congressional to-do list is even longer than it was last year — but the approaching midterms may actually spur lawmakers into action. Democrats are aware (though they don’t talk about it publicly) that their governing trifecta is likely to come to an end with the loss of the House in November. Plus, their slim odds of avoiding that outcome rely on a more impressive set of legislative accomplishments than they have achieved so far.

Thus, Democrats are looking to move on various issues in February — including appropriations, Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, Electoral Count Act reform, and the new Supreme Court nominee. Their new self-imposed deadline is March 1, when President Joe Biden will deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress and a large TV audience. Given his current parlous standing in public opinion, Biden needs a few things to brag about. So Democrats in Congress are rushing to help him out and maximize their own odds of reelection later this year. Here are the big items on their agenda:

Avoiding a government shutdown

In theory, annual appropriations are supposed to be completed by Congress and signed by the president before the beginning of each fiscal year (which falls on October 1). In reality, that almost never happens; few “regular” appropriations bills are finished on time, and rarely are all of them enacted separately before the next fiscal year is pending and the whole cycle starts over again. So you get “stopgap” bills that continue spending at current levels for a short while, often leading to “omnibus” bills that cover all non-enacted appropriations until the end of the fiscal year. There have been two “stopgap” bills already this fiscal year, one signed on September 30 and the other signed on December 3. This second stopgap bill expires on February 18.

Appropriators are reportedly trying to pass some if not all of the regular appropriations bills, and/or to put together an omnibus bill to get the federal government to next October 1. But another short-term stopgap — perhaps for just a couple of weeks — is entirely possible. The big danger with potential lapses in appropriations is a government shutdown, which could occur if a stopgap cannot be agreed to (usually because the minority party uses the leverage of the Senate filibuster to block action until its demands are met). Given the unstable state of the economy at present, it’s unlikely either party will want to go in that direction this time around. But there will be some jitters just before February 18 if a deal has not been struck, and getting even a stopgap done will take some floor time in both Houses.

Passing a China competition bill

A large and complex package of measures focused on stimulating domestic tech-manufacturing capacity and addressing alleged Chinese unfair trade practices passed the Senate last June with significant bipartisan support (including 19 Republicans). A House version will soon reach the floor, where Republicans are pledging united opposition. It has, moreover, additional trade-policy provisions that will force a House-Senate conference and possibly a filibuster in the Senate after that.

Ratcheting up the visibility of this once-obscure legislation are twin obsessions with boosting semiconductor manufacturing, which President Biden has made central to his strategy for fighting inflation, and the furor over Chinese sponsorship with the Winter Olympic Games, which begin later this week. With Democrats beating the anti-inflation drum, and Republicans playing up a new cold war with China, the debate, if you want to call it that, could get red-hot.

Build Back Better

The collapse of progress on a FY 2022 budget reconciliation bill — dubbed the Build Back Better package by Joe Biden — was one of last year’s biggest story lines. But just because Joe Manchin killed one version of BBB doesn’t mean he will never agree to another, so long as his heavily Republican constituents are convinced he has beaten the liberals into submission. So talks continue, with progressive Democrats like Ro Khanna making it clear Manchin has the power to largely dictate bill text.

Aside from Manchin’s demands (and the lesser but still credible threats by Kyrsten Sinema to kill BBB), there are issues in the House where a group of high-tax-state Democrats are demanding concessions on the state-and-local-tax (SALT) deduction capped by Trump’s tax legislation in 2017. And the closer the deal gets to going down, the more demands over such relatively marginal issues may become nonnegotiable.

Ideally, BBB would get resolved before Biden makes his State of the Union address, since it’s been a particularly painful loss for him.

Electoral Count Act reform

Now that the Democratic voting-rights drive has been definitively defeated by serial Republican filibusters (and the refusal of Manchin and Sinema to support a carve out for voting rights in the rules allowing filibusters), bipartisan negotiations have begun in earnest on a fix to the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the arcane statute governing the tabulation and confirmation of presidential electoral votes every four years. But now that Donald Trump has attacked (albeit incoherently) this whole topic of legislation, further progress could become difficult and touchy, particularly since among Democrats it is inevitably connected to the work of the House Select Committee on January 6, a body whose very legitimacy has been rejected by nearly all Republicans. It will be interesting to see if the president (who has stayed out of the negotiations so far) becomes visibly involved in ECA reform talks or mentions the subject on March 1.

The Supreme Court nomination and confirmation

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer won’t retire until the end of the current term in June or July. But both the White House and Senate Democrats have made it clear they intend to move on naming and confirming a successor well before then, even if that means letting a confirmed justice cool her heels for a bit before officially joining the Court. Presumably, the vetting process for Biden’s pick will move along quickly enough that he can talk about her in the State of the Union address. But while the confirmation process will only involve the Senate Judiciary Committee initially, if it’s as controversial as early Republican attacks on Biden and his so-called “affirmative action” approach to filling the vacancy suggest, it will affect the overall political climate and thus everything going on in Congress.

Obviously, external events — from potential Russian military action in Ukraine to unexpected developments involving the economy or COVID-19 and its variants — could affect the schedule and congressional and presidential priorities. But February will be crowded and noisy enough as it is.

A Guide to Congress’s Jam-Packed February